Jackson town councilors and town staff at a special Monday workshop deliberated the formalization of numerous rules guiding the conduct of the council’s proceedings, including what has recently become a hot-button issue: absences from meetings and the process by which they are excused or unexcused.
Following Monday’s discussion, the Town Council is now set to vote next Monday on two ordinances that govern meeting absences and other various council rules and procedures. Some of those processes are already in practice but have never been formalized by prior councils.
The issue of consecutive missed regular meetings and when and how a councilor’s or the mayor’s seat may be vacated because of missed meetings has been at the forefront of late after Councilor Jessica Sell Chambers sent a Sept. 17 email to the council and key town staff indicating she planned to raise the issue at their subsequent Sept. 20 meeting. In her email she articulated the reasons she intended to bring it up and singled out Councilor Jim Rooks for having missed several consecutive meetings without notifying the council or the public.
Chambers followed through on her statement, raising the issue under “Matters from Mayor and Council” at the end of the Sept. 20 meeting. She pointed to a Wyoming statute governing missed regular meetings and the vacating of a council seat. That statute, Wyoming Statute 15-1-107, states, in part: “A vacancy exists in the office of mayor or councilman if during the term for which elected any mayor or councilman: ... (iii) Fails to attend four (4) or more consecutive regularly scheduled meetings of the council without an excused absence as determined by a majority of the council.”
Two days after that Sept. 20 meeting, at which the council asked staff to bring it ordinances upon which to vote guiding such matters and other council rules of procedure at the Oct. 18 regular meeting, Chambers and Rooks exchanged several terse and personal emails that included the council, key staff and eventually the News&Guide and Chambers’ friend Devon Viehman, who was also a candidate for council last year.
Rooks, who suffered massive injuries in 2019 when he was run over by a vehicle while bicycling, explained in an interview with the News&Guide that his absences were due to being away in Maryland at an intensive pain management treatment center. He acknowledged that part of the program included treatment for alcohol abuse, but he again denied having taken any narcotic painkillers since his release from St. John’s Hospital in August 2019. He had previously stated that in the email thread with Chambers after she accused him in one of the emails of being intoxicated on painkillers at a new-councilor orientation at the beginning of the year. Rooks also noted that he informed Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson and other key town staffers of his upcoming absences, which the mayor confirmed.
On Monday, Assistant Town Manager Roxanne Robinson walked through the proposed changes and additions to formalizing the various policies regarding council rules and conduct, including the matter of missed meetings. While Chambers requested that the latter item and related ordinances be placed on the Oct. 18 agenda, discussions about it and other council policies among council and staff actually began at a July 6 meeting, so town staff had been working on formalizing the language since that meeting. Monday’s workshop was intended to give the council a chance to look at and discuss the various items before taking action on them Monday.
“[Town Attorney] Lea Colasuonno worked hard on this as well, and also [Town Manager) Larry (Pardee] and [Community Development Director] Tyler Sinclair also provided review, and [Community Engagement Specialist] Susan [Scarlata] as well,” Robinson told the council of the work she and staff put in on the matter since July 6. “We’ve updated it for gender-neutrality, and then we’ve incorporated the council’s use of friendly amendments. Virtual meetings, we’ve clarified that, and you had asked for some options to allow council members to determine a certain amount that they could be excused and be able to attend virtually without the mayor’s permission.”
Robinson said she also provided in her staff report a draft ordinance regarding vacancies in office. That ordinance and the other regarding rules and procedures will be on the Oct. 18 agenda for a vote on first reading, she said. Ordinances require successful votes on three consecutive readings to take effect.
After Robinson explained that the rules and policies being considered are guidelines to which the council can occasionally create exceptions, Chambers asked, “Why be guided by anything if when we veer from it, it’s OK?”
Colasuonno answered, “These rules are followed 95, 99% of the time. The purpose of that is if you miss a procedural step here or there, you have not invalidated the entire action of the governing body. So it’s not meant to be, ‘Oh, we’re just going to disregard the rules all the time.’ That’s not the purpose of that clause.”
Chambers questioned why some of the rules — such as virtual participation and meeting absences — would require the mayor’s approval when council members answer to the public, not each other.
“Ultimately,” Colasuonno said, “the voters get an opportunity to not put you back in office if, for example, they disagree with some sort of conduct.”
Vice Mayor Arne Jorgensen questioned staff about the wording of the state statute regarding “four or more” absences from regularly scheduled meetings, and if that wording allows the town to, for example, adopt an ordinance that states “six or more” absences could lead to a seat being vacated by the council.
Robinson and Colasuonno acknowledged that the council could select a number greater than four, as listed in the statute, but that would simply be inferring that absences between four and the number chosen by the council would be excused.
Chambers later raised the issue of what standard council members should be held to in regard to required attendance at regular meetings, given that there are 24 regularly scheduled meetings per year, not including special meetings or workshops.
She pointed out that between council salaries, retirement and Social Security contributions, along with town-provided insurance benefits if a councilor opts to receive those benefits, the total pay is in the ballpark of $60,000 to $62,000 per year, a figure confirmed by Finance Director Kelly Thompson.
With regularly scheduled meetings on the first and third Mondays of each month, Chambers tallied the total pay for each of those days at $2,500 per day. She added that if council members are missing 10% of those meetings, they’re doing a disservice to the community members they serve by not participating in important town business.
“It’s no wonder that people think that we’re being paid too much, and I don’t think that we should be taking those absences lightly,” said Chambers, who at no point during the discussion about absences or council rules referred to Rooks by name.
Morton Levinson, who is in her ninth year on the council, said she has tallied the total number of council meetings — regular and specially called, including workshops — held each year and they average between 70 and 100 annually.
“So while I see where you’re going with the kind of cut-and-dry amount of money per meeting, I think that the voters know, and we know, all of the work that goes into it,” the mayor said, adding that “cash in pocket” for councilors after taxes, etc., is about $30,000 or less.
While much of the discussion revolved around meeting absences and attendance requirements, other issues were raised such as support for incorporating Family and Medical Leave-type language into the ordinances, allowing for council members or the mayor to miss time if they have a child, suffer a serious illness or have a family member with a serious illness, for example.
Though Chambers did not directly reference or engage Rooks during the discussion on attendance rules — Rooks spoke only during that portion of the workshop to make two motions to put the ordinances on Monday’s meeting agenda — Rooks did later make a comment implying he felt much of Chambers’ discussion was directed at him.
“Councilwoman Chambers, it’s very obvious to me, and I think to a lot of other people, that there is a personal, and political and petty nature to your communications during this meeting. I don’t appreciate it,” Rooks said.
Asked by the News&Guide for reaction to Rooks’ statement, Chambers wrote via text: “I know for some, accountability can feel like ‘bullying’ or ‘petty’ when you’re not used to being held accountable. Accountability for a colleague’s bad behavior or inappropriate conduct is the opposite of a personal attack — I can see how some men like Rooks might confuse them though.”